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With Lakers thinking cap space, don’t look for Julius Randle extension

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The Lakers’ plan is no secret: Spend this season developing the young core — Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Kuzma and on won the list — while hoarding cap space, create more with trades, then next summer get at least one and maybe two max contract players to come in and start winning.

The cap space part of the plan means don’t expect the Lakers to extend Randle before the season starts, even though he is eligible. They would like to keep him, but they want to keep his cap hold down, and Los Angeles has the rights to match any offer next summer.

Randle doesn’t sound like he expects a deal, speaking to Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.

“If it is right for both sides, we’ll see,” Randle said of trying to get a contract extension done early. “All I can really focus on is playing basketball. I can’t really focus on the contract situation.”

“At the end of the day, I am letting my agent handle all of that,” Randle added. “We have great communication and we are on the same page and he is in communication with the front office about that. Because if I think about that day in and day out, I will drive myself crazy.”

There’s not going to be a deal. Cap space is the priority for Los Angeles, a contract for Randle would cut into it. If the Lakers keep him beyond this season, it’s because the two sides reach a deal next summer, or the Lakers match another team’s offer.

That means Randle is playing for his next contract this season — and it’s not going to be easy. He’s in a battle for the starting four spot with Nance, and that plus the play of Kuzma could mean fewer minutes. Randle plays with power, his handles are improved, but he doesn’t have much shooting range (77 percent of his shots last season came within 10 feet of the rim), and his defense needs to be more consistent.

Don’t be shocked if Randle’s name comes up in trade talks. The Lakers would like to move off Luol Deng‘s contract — cap space, cap space, cap space — and that will require a sweetener. The Lakers might be willing to package Randle in that kind of a deal (although other teams will likely ask for Ingram).

Three questions the Los Angeles Lakers must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 26-56, missed the playoffs.

I know what you did last summer: The Lakers had the lottery gods smile on them and were able to draft Lonzo Ball at No. 2, but that was far from the only move they made. They traded Timofey Mozgov and his massive contract, plus DeAngelo Russell to Brooklyn and got back primarily Brook Lopez. The Lakers also added Kyle Kuzma, Thomas Bryant and Josh Hart in the draft, then were able to snag Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in free agency on a one-year contract. Veteran Corey Brewer is now a Laker and will come off the bench. The Lakers also lost Nick Young to the Warriors.

THREE QUESTIONS THE LAKERS MUST ANSWER:


1) The Lonzo Ball effect is real, but can he score enough for it to thrive and really change the Lakers culture?
Ball is one of those guys who has “it.” Not only do other players want to play with him, when they are on the court with him his run-the-floor, pass-first ethos infects everyone. Big men get out in transition knowing they will get rewarded. Guys make the extra pass. Luke Walton has a point guard in Ball who could bring the Warriors’ feel and style to Staples Center. The Lakers just feel different this season.

However, Ball has to score some to make it all work. He is always going to look to pass first, but teams are going to play him to do that and dare him to shoot — not just wide open jumpers, but on the drive. They are going to try to force him into floaters and midrange shots that are not yet a comfortable part of his arsenal. Ball has to hit some threes (which he is capable of doing, despite the funky release), and learn to score better at the rim when he attacks, he has to be a threat to score for his passing to have the desired effect.

Ball was not a heavy usage guy in college, and that’s not likely to change now — if he gets up to scoring a fairly efficient 10 points per game average this season that would be a win. The good news is as Summer League wore on teams more and more played him to pass, he adjusted and became more confident as a scorer (he had one 30-point game). That’s Summer League, and NBA defenders are longer, more athletic, and smarter, but if Ball can show that kind of development on the offensive end over the course of an NBA season it will be a great sign.

2) Is anyone going to play any defense? Last season, the Lakers had the worst defense in the NBA, giving up 110.6 points per 100 possessions. The season before, the Lakers were dead last in the NBA in defense (109.3). The season before that, the Lakers were 29th in the NBA in defense (108). The season before that the Lakers were 28th in the NBA in defense (107.9).

See a pattern here? The Lakers can run the court and whip the ball around on clever passes all they want, if they can’t get stops it’s all moot. With young players such as Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and Kyle Kuzma getting heavy minutes this season the Lakers are not going to be great defensively, but they have to start getting better.

Some of the roster changes this summer will help with that. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a strong defender on the wing, and in a contract year he will be motivated to improve his reputation on that end (because wing defenders who can shoot threes get PAID). Brook Lopez isn’t a high-flying rim protector, he’s in trouble trying to defend in space if there is a switch off a pick, but he’s smart in the paint about being in the right place at the right time. He will help the Lakers’ paint defense.

Any culture change on defense will have to start with Luke Walton and the coaching staff — if the Lakers want to be a team that runs, they have to get stops. Walton has to make defense a priority and pull guys not hustling on that end. Then the players have to buy in, play the system, and put in the work — and if the Lakers do all that they probably still are bottom 10 in defense this season. But they need to start to see a change or nothing else will work.

3) How do Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Kuzma, Ivica Zubac, and the rest of the potential Lakers young core develop? If the dreams of Lakers fans and management — landing two big-time free agents next summer — are going to come true, the team has to do two things. First, clear out the cap space (which will likely involve dumping the Luol Deng contract before July 1, which would require sending out a sweetener like Randle or Nance or another nice young player in the trade).

The other thing is the young core of players on the roster has to develop to the point that “Superstar X” looks at the Lakers and thinks he can win there. Lonzo Ball and the culture change is just part of that, the other guys have to develop as well. Those players have the skills to be NBA players, but can they translate that into production on the court?

Brandon Ingram is at the top of the list of guys to watch. He has gotten stronger, he is more confident and aggressive — and he is shooting 26.7 percent this preseason. Small sample size and it’s preseason, but it’s a concern. He struggled with this last season, and his shots need to start going in (his form has always looked good). His defense needs to improve as well.

Beyond that, can Julius Randle (a better defender than he gets credit for) develop to the next level on offense and be able to be a threat stepping away from the basket. Kuzma has been a surprise both at Summer League and through the preseason with his hustle and suddenly sharp three-point shooting, will that continue or is his shooting a fluke? Can Zubac get stronger, develop a more diversified post game, and find a role as an old-school center on a running team? And the list goes on and on. Historically, the Lakers as an organization have never been great at developing talent (as opposed to the Spurs, for example) because they didn’t need to be, but in the modern NBA they have to figure it out. We’ll see if the Lakers can live up to that challenge.

Lonzo Ball’s first game came with lots of hype, rookie learning experiences

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ANAHEIM — For the first time more than a year, a Lakers game felt like an event.

For a meaningless preseason game, a hockey building was sold out — 18,000 people filled The Honda Center. Magic Johnson was sitting courtside waiving to fans and signing autographs — but not as many as LaVar Ball, who had a massive line of people wanting selfies with him. Pretty much the entire Buss family —˘ including fired Jim Buss, the former head of Lakers’ basketball operations, in his trademark baseball cap — sat on the sideline.

It was all about Lonzo Ball.

When Ball did just about anything — simply get introduced (the loudest cheers by far), or hit a three or pick up a dime— the SoCal crowd erupted. It felt like familiar old times for Lakers fans.

“To me, it feels right,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “I mean that’s what it’s supposed to be like. I was a little shocked last year (when the building was about half full) because when I played I was always playing with Kobe so we had crowds like this everywhere we went in preseason. Last year going around, obviously, the arenas were half full.”

Not anymore. Lonzo and the Lakers sold out Summer League games in Las Vegas in July, and they sold out a preseason game against Minnesota in Anaheim. That hype and buzz around the Lakers are back.

It’s just going to take some time for Lonzo and the team to catch up with the hype.

The Lakers lost to Minnesota 108-99, and when the Timberwolves leaned on their best players, they dominated. It was a sloppy, choppy preseason game but the Lakers looked like a young team with a lot to learn.

Ball wasn’t terrible, but he wasn’t good either. He finished with 5 points on 2-of-9 shooting with eight assists. He is dynamic pushing the ball ahead and when he is on the court bigs run the floor hard looking to get rewarded — it changes the culture of the team. Ball’s passes ahead were smarter and less risky than what he was able to get away with in Summer League. When Ball is on the court, there is an energy about the team that is just different.

However, at times — especially as the Timberwolves’ veteran defenders started to adjust — Ball forced passes rather than take shots when he drove, and made some other rough decisions.

“He’s so unselfish that sometimes he has good shots for himself and he tries to get someone else a shot — we want him taking those,” Walton said. “Players and scouts in this league are going to know he wants to play make so, we’re looking for him to be more aggressive as a scorer with the ball, especially early on, then as defenses adjust, play make.”

“He’s right…” Ball said. “I think it’s gonna come with time. It’s my first time playing against somebody else with this group. The way I like to play is to get my teammates involved first, but Luke is right, if my shot’s open I got to take it.”

One of those forced passes was his first play of the game, attempted alley-oop to Larry Nance Jr. that Minnesota read and broke up.

“That was a play, probably should have threw it a little higher, I know Larry can go get it,” Ball said.

The youngster also needs to work on recognizing when to push it, and when to just get into the offense.

“We want to play faster this year, but what we also struggle with, what’s an ongoing process, is when nothing’s available then we want to be a motion offense team where the ball is moving side-to-side,” Walton said. “We don’t want to just jack up quick shots. We want to play fast when the opportunity is there but we need to get better at recognizing when it’s not there and getting into the flow of an offense.”

While Walton did the good coach thing and praised the rookie’s defense, he struggled at times on that end. Lonzo looked like a rookie on defense, struggling over picks, not being able to handle Jeff Teague in space, and occasionally getting pushed around physically — Minnesota posted Jimmy Butler on him a couple of times, and Ball is not strong enough to stop him.

The things Ball struggled with are the things all rookies are going to struggle with. It’s a massive leap to the NBA. But you can see his potential, and with him the potential of the Lakers.

Which is why there is a lot of buzz around this team. Again.

Magic Johnson said he turned down Warriors, Pistons, Knicks before Lakers

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Magic Johnson wanted to stay loyal to the Lakers and the Buss family.

Sure, he ventured into baseball ownership for a bit with the Dodgers, but his heart was always in hoops. He had owned part of the Lakers in the past, and while he sold that (for the Dodgers) he was brought in earlier this year by Jeanie Buss, then eventually was asked to run the Lakers’ basketball operations.

Magic said on ESPN’s First Take it wasn’t his first offer.

Here’s the quote.

“I turned down three jobs. My good friends Peter and Joe Lacob bought the Golden State Warriors. They came to me I want you to be an owner, be a partner with us I said no I’m a Laker. My friends bought the Detroit Pistons, Tom Gores, and a Michigan State guy. Come on home it would be a great story, I can’t I’m a Laker. I could have owned other teams.”

He was offered the Knicks president job as well at one point.

We will see how good a job Magic can do in this role. He, and GM Rob Pelinka, have done an excellent job setting the Lakers up with young players and the potential to add free agents in the coming years, but a lot of the groundwork for that was laid by the much maligned Jim Buss/Mitch Kupchak front office (they drafted Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., and they planned for the cap space). The steps from potential to good to contender are difficult ones, and many a team has stumbled over them.

Magic got the job he wanted. Now we’ll see if he can do it.

Paul George: If Thunder reach conference finals or beat Warriors, ‘I’d be dumb to want to leave’

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Paul George supposedly told his former Pacers teammates for years he wanted to join the Lakers. George publicly flirted with the Lakers. The Lakers reportedly received word not to trade for George, because he might just sign in Los Angeles anyway in 2018 free agency. George told the Pacers he’d leave Indiana, reportedly preferably for the Lakers. Even after the Thunder traded for him, George was still reportedly telling friends he planned to sign with the Lakers.

Is George, a Southern California native, truly hell-bent on the Lakers?

Now, we can hear it straight from him.

George, via Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated:

“I grew up a Lakers and a Clippers fan,” George says. “I idolized Kobe. There will always be a tie here, a connection here. People saying I want to come here, who doesn’t want to play for their hometown? That’s a dream come true, if you’re a kid growing up on the outskirts of L.A., to be the man in your city. But it’s definitely been overstated. For me, it’s all about winning. I want to be in a good system, a good team. I want a shot to win it. I’m not a stats guy. I’m playing this game to win and build a legacy of winning. I’ve yet to do that. I’m searching for it. If we get a killer season in Oklahoma, we make the conference finals or upset the Warriors or do something crazy, I’d be dumb to want to leave that.”

“It’s too early for L.A.,” he says. “It would have to be a situation where the ball gets rolling and guys are hopping on. This guy commits, that guy commits. ‘Oh s—, now there’s a team forming.’ It has to be like that.”

“I’m in OKC, so hopefully me and Russ do a good enough job and make it to the conference finals and love the situation, why not recruit someone to come build it with us? I’m open in this whole process.”

I’m a bit surprised George laid down such direct benchmarks – reaching the conference finals or upsetting the Warriors – but they, especially the former, are achievable.

Russell Westbrook is the best teammate George, who reached consecutive conference finals in Indiana, has ever played with. The Thunder have built a quality supporting cast with Steven Adams, a re-signed Andre Roberson and newly acquired Patrick Patterson. Even Raymond Felton plugs a major hole at backup point guard.

The Thunder – who won several coin-flip games – probably weren’t as good as their 47-35 record last year, so assessing improvement can be difficult. But they should be better this year.

George is a great fit. Westbrook’s singular offensive ability allows Oklahoma City to fill the floor with defense-first players, and George is another wing stopper with Roberson. For a star, George is also extremely comfortable playing off the ball – a must around Westbrook. Yet, George can also take the lead, easing the burden on Westbrook at times.

Staying with the Thunder could look very appealing next year.

But so could joining the Lakers, especially if George gives them a hometown advantage. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. aren’t yet ready to win, but George is spending a season of their growing pains in Oklahoma City. By next summer, the Lakers’ young core will be closer to ascending. The Lakers, who already dumped Timofey Mozgov, are also working toward clearing enough cap space to lure multiple stars at once, as George alluded to.

He spoke in terms of other players joining Los Angeles first, though his commitment would go a long way in recruiting. The Lakers probably can’t bank on that at this point.

Neither can the Thunder.

But the battle lines are being drawn – surprisingly bluntly, by George himself.